(Sept. 12) WASHINGTON, D.C. — Action by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to divert $150 million to pay for cattle feed from Section 32 funds that are supposed to be used for surplus commodity purchases — including fruits and vegetables — is “disappointing and disturbing,” produce industry officials say.

“While USDA and White House officials have promised us no change in purchases of fruits and vegetables because of this move, it’s simply the wrong policy to begin robbing one account to pay for something so different,” Robert Guenther, vice president of public policy for the Alexandria, Va.-based United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, said Sept. 4.

The USDA made the move to meet disaster-relief needs, Guenther said.

“That in no way will impact AMS in its purchase of fruits and vegetables or commodities for the federal feeding programs,” said Kathryn Mattingly, a USDA spokeswoman.

The funds, Mattingly added, are being used by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency for drought relief in Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota.

Guenther, nevertheless, described such a practice as “a slippery slope,” although he added that it should not have any impact on current fruit and vegetable purchases.

“It’s not going to impact the current purchasing patterns for fruits and vegetables, but we find it somewhat of a concern that this precedent has been set,” Guenther said. “We’d like to see that money dedicated solely for fruit and vegetable purchases.”

He added that the Senate Produce Caucus is preparing a letter for President Bush, expressing its concerns about the decision.